Anna Leader/Catapult Books
The author and former refugee explores her own relationship with being believed; and believe others.
Who is she? Dina Nayeri is an award-winning author and essayist. She was born in Iran during the revolution and came to the United States when she was just 10 years old.
- She has written various books, including A teaspoon of land and sea And The ungrateful refugeeand focused on themes related to her own experiences with immigration, diaspora, and the modern refugee experience.
- She is also a fellow of the Institute for Ideas and Imagination at Columbia University.
What is the problem ? Nayeri’s last title, Who is believed? When the truth is not enough focuses on the narratives and expectations we expect and judge from people whose lives depend on exactly that: being believed.
- Nayeri has spent years studying the stories of vulnerable people across society, be it the justice system, the medical system or the asylum system. What she found was a consistent line of pain and innocence that had to conform to certain structures and beliefs in order to be taken seriously by others.
What does Nayeri say about his work?
The process of writing the novel and reviewing it also became deeply personal. Nayeri describes to NPR the sudden loss of her partner’s brother to suicide as a moment of personal judgment that led her to rewrite the book entirely:
I realized I had made this incredible giant mistake of not believing someone vulnerable. I was gathering all of my stories, and I had all of this research, and I was doing all of my thinking. And then all of a sudden my partner’s brother, who had struggled with mental health issues all his life, suddenly committed suicide.
And I didn’t believe him at all. I thought, ‘My God, here’s a privileged boy, he’s white, he’s privileged, he’s got a college education, he’s got passports. What’s wrong here? I don’t have time for that. And when he died, it was like everything I had known had been turned upside down. What was I doing examining the belief when I made such a mistake? And so I had to rewrite the book. I had to write it in a different way.
Nayeri also tells NPR how she sees the relationship between credibility in systems and structures versus interpersonal relationships:
Who we believe and what we believe in, what we place our faith and trust in is very much tied to who we are. What moments of comfort and serenity and calm to which we are accustomed. They are sort of our shortcuts. If a story gives us a sense of truth, a sense of credibility, or if it fits into a narrative we know, then we accept it. And I think a big part of telling a story within these bureaucratic systems, for example, asylum, is telling it in a particular cultural way so that it might be familiar to the officer listening to you. , and that she can kind of pull the right triggers, the triggers that they have built into them, and to unlock their emotions. And that’s the thing that seems absurd to me, the fact that in order to have resources, in our bureaucratic systems, you have to unlock someone’s emotional triggers. It is one person’s judgment.
It is very much related to when we sit across from someone at the table socially or when someone asks us for a favor in everyday life, whether we want to return it or not. We surround ourselves with familiar people, so we think we’re nice, because we often say yes to people who ask us things. Or if someone asks us to believe it, tells us a poignant story, we believe it. But the fact is that these people are already in our community, so they are familiar to us. So they tell the story the way we are used to having it told.
If someone comes and tells you a story, imagine if they are a complete stranger and you don’t know them and you don’t know any back story. It’s a bit like having a photo or a photo negative. And you have a photograph of a believable story that you already have in your head, and they superimpose their story on top of yours, this photo negative. And if the outlines match, well, that makes sense. It is something that becomes more complete and richer. But if the outlines don’t match, it just becomes a big, ugly mess, right? And then you reject it and move on and you don’t think you’ve been mean, and you don’t think you’ve neglected any humanitarian duty.
You just think that person was lying. And there’s so much that comes from things like trauma and fear and shame and a culture that feels like lying, and that’s one of the fundamental problems with the asylum system. And all the other systems we’ve mentioned where you rely on someone’s judgment of you.
Want more author interviews? Listen to the consider this episode about how Pamela Anderson took control of her life story.
So what now?
- Nayeri says she hopes readers realize that their own instincts aren’t infallible, and that she wants to encourage a process of self-examination into the kinds of stories we tend to believe, and how we we can extend it.
- “How can I add different types of stories to my repertoire of stories that move me, and that can start to change the way we instinctively react to strangers? That’s what I hope people take away, and I hope this will affect the way they treat asylum seekers, patients and all kinds of vulnerable people”.